John Harder’s 34-year career at Southeast High is encapsulated in a small black notebook detailing game results and other historic moments.
His journey, though, runs deeper than the pages in the book or the basketballs encased above the shelves in his classroom that signify milestone victories.
The latest: Wednesday’s 58-47 district tournament win over Tarpon Springs gave Harder his 800th career victory.
“I never made a basket in my life at this high school,” said Harder, who turns 70 in May, in the days leading up to the monumental win. “I never blocked a shot. I never stole the ball. … I was never out there. Coaching is a different gig. … To me, it’s all been these kids. They did it year in and year out for 34 years now.”
An Illinois native, Harder was coaching junior varsity basketball and football when he decided he wanted to become a head coach.
Through a vacation to Florida’s Suncoast, Harder’s path led him to Manatee County’s two vacancies at the time: Southeast High and Palmetto High.
A meeting with former longtime head football coach and athletic director Paul Maechtle brought a comfortable feeling and a revelation.
Harder’s brother, Jeff, was a Phi Delta Beta fraternity brother of Maechtle’s at Valparaiso. Both played football there, too.
“I fell in love with Paul Maecthle right off the bat as we talked about old times,” Harder said. “He’s a Milwaukee Brewer fan and I’m a Chicago Cubs fan. The interview went really, really well. I took the afternoon interview over at Palmetto and it was OK, but I didn’t have that inner feeling. That connection.”
Added Maecthle: “It was a conversation that was just down-to-earth, two social studies teachers talking things and we just hit it off. There was no big ego in the arrangement. He was willing to take on any assignment he was going to be given. And he filled the bill.”
Maechtle wasn’t Southeast’s athletic director at the time, but was hiring for his football staff and Harder joined to coach the freshmen.
Soon, though, the girls basketball program opened up when Benjamin “Buzz” Narbut bolted for Florida State, and his replacement left after a season.
Harder guided the Noles to a state title in his first season in 1985.
Southeast has won three state titles, 21 district titles — including 12 consecutive from 1999-2000 to 2010-11 — and had 65 players earn college scholarships during Harder’s tenure.
He’s also had some key winning streaks in his tenure: 39 in a row from Dec. 1989 to Dec. 1990, 38 in a row from Nov. 2013 to Dec. 2014 and 72 consecutive wins over Manatee County opponents from 1997 to 2007.
In 2016, the court inside Southeast’s gym was named after Harder. And Wednesday, he earned his 800th career victory.
Just don’t expect him to tally his 900th.
“I want to say goodbye,” Harder said. “I want to do it on my terms. I want to go when it’s time to go. And I have an exit strategy, and part of it is to leave it in good hands.”
A teacher in American government, American history and world history, Harder’s favorite American history time period is the Civil War.
So he said he wants to visit every Major League Baseball ballpark and American Civil War battlefield while he still can.
So he’s spent more recent seasons grooming assistant coach Brian Alexander as his successor.
For now, though, Harder is still going strong.
Wednesday also served as his 1,015th career game coached at Southeast High, and he hasn’t missed a game yet.
Owing to his work ethic instilled through his parents, Harder kept coaching even after suffering a torn Achilles’ tendon when his Noles beat perennial state power Clearwater, 67-65, on Dec. 30, 2002, in a holiday tournament at Lakewood Ranch High.
“How do you let these kids down,” Harder said. “This was the best team in school history since 1990 and there’s three D-I players on the team.”
That season, which featured Depree Bowden and Briana Phillips, who both played at Florida, culminated with a narrow state championship loss to Jacksonville Ribault.
Harder said his longevity and what he’s done in the classroom and in the community is part of his legacy. So, too, are the players he’s coached and the success that’s occurred.
Wednesday just added to the lore.